Rob Reiner hasn’t made a really good movie in years, and though “Flipped” is an improvement on his recent efforts, it’s still too frail and cutesy to be much more than passable. It really belongs on a nice family-oriented cable channel, where it would be right at home and will undoubtedly wind up.
The picture, based on the novel by Wendelin Van Draanen, could be considered an adolescent complement to Reiner’s “The Story of Us” (1999), in which a couple about to separate look back on their years of marriage to understand what happened. But before you blanch—that movie was really dreadful, after all—this one far better. Set in the small-town Midwest of the 1960s, it follows two neighbor kids, energetic free spirit Juli Baker (Madeline Carroll) and handsome but insecure Byrce Loski (Callan McAuliffe), from their first meeting through some bumpy patches until they finally find themselves in the throes of middle-school puppy love. The hook is that the story’s told in alternating episodes from their very different perspectives, giving a “he said, she said” feel to the proceedings.
But there’s certainly an overall arc to the tale. Bryce is an uptight kid—understandably, given that his father (Anthony Edwards) is a stern, bullying guy always bad-mouthing people—and eager for acceptance. By contrast Juli is an independent-minded extrovert with strong principles, something she’s inherited from her dad (Aidan Quinn), a gregarious, artistic guy. And while Bryce avoids her like the plague, she continues to carry the torch for him that she took up the very day they met—despite the fact that he disappoints her over and over again, unconsciously affected by his father’s derogatory comments about her family (he’s particularly disparaging about their failure to keep up their yard).
So Bryce, for example, refuses to join Juli’s lonely—and ultimately futile—crusade to save the tree on which she perches each morning to scan the horizon for their school bus from being cut down. And when she gives him eggs laid by the chickens she’s raised for a school project, he surreptitiously tosses them in the garbage after his father says they might carry salmonella. Worse still, he falls in with a nasty remark a pal of his drops about her mentally-challenged uncle. It’s betrayals like this that eventually persuade Juli that there’s a lot less to Bryce than she always wanted to believe, even after she’s been befriended by the boy’s widowed granddad (John Mahoney), who helps her fix up her yard after she hears Steve Loski’s barbs about it. Grandfather, you see, understands that the girl is somebody special and encourages Bryce to man up.
It’s hardly a surprise that just as Juli loses interest in Bryce, his interest in her spikes, and he finally has to prove that he’s not the vacuous, spineless creature she’s come to view him as.
“Flipped” clearly has a good message to deliver about growing up, but unlike Reiner’s “Stand By Me,” the calculation and fussy structure undermine the effect. The fault doesn’t like with Carroll and McAuliffe, both of whom are attractive, likable youngsters who bring off their roles well. Among the adults Quinn, in a part diametrically opposed to his turn in “The Eclipse,” and Mahoney, doing the avuncular bit with his usual aplomb, come off best. Rebecca De Mornay, as Bryce’s mom, and Penelope Ann Miller, as Juli’s, are fine but have fewer opportunities to shine. The most problematic performance comes from Edwards, who’s never able to give his character depth or coherence—though it’s mostly the writing that’s at fault.
What really weakens the picture, though, are the bifurcated construction, which is initially amusing but grows more cumbersome as it proceeds, and Reiner’s all too heavy hand. “Flipped” positively drips with nostalgia, the images shot by Thomas del Ruth all awash with the glow of golden sunlight and smothered in Marc Shaiman’s music. Simply put, this is a movie that tries too hard—as in the sequence in which Juli and her dad go to visit her institutionalized uncle (Kevin Weisman). The scene is designed to be revelatory but instead just seems cloying.
Still, largely because of its agreeable leads remains pleasant, if not much more. It occupies the unexceptional middle ground between Reiner’s two other movies about kids—“Stand By Me” at the one end and the atrocious “North” at the other.